Imagine, if you will, that a family arrived at your house and moved right in because someone told them your house was Casa nullias – “nobody’s house.” In any case, they considered themselves as better than you. They moved into the best rooms, took the best seats in the lounge, and the loveliest spots in the garden. They ate your food, drank your wine, wore your clothes. You protested, but it was all in vain, and, after some time, you find yourself working for this new family for little or no money. You are, literally, a slave in your own home.
Have you imagined what that would be like?
How did it make you feel?
Outraged, I hope!
It’s the sort of stuff of which nightmares are made. You’d wake up from such a dream with your heart thumping, and gradually realise this awful scenario was just a bad dream ~ except it isn’t. This is what happened when the British declared Australia “Terra nullias” – “nobody’s land” (or wasteland).
In 1788 Australia was not “nobody’s land,” it was inhabited by about 700,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who were made up of between 500 and 700 tribes. The Aboriginals tried to protest the colonisation, but the Europeans drove them from their lands or killed them. Because of massacres, plus the introduction of disease and alcohol, the Indigenous population decreased by almost 87% by 1900.
Cook and Banks had seen few natives as they sailed close to Australia’s coast. They deduced, wrongly, that there’d be fewer if any natives inland. In any case, “European culture was superior to all others, and…Europeans could define the world in their terms. A colony could be established by persuading the indigenous inhabitants to submit themselves to its overlordship; by purchasing from those inhabitants the right to settle part or parts of it; by unilateral possession, on the basis of first discovery and effective occupation.”
The Earl of Morton, president of the Royal Society, reminded Cook’s crew that Indigenous peoples were the “legal possessors of the several regions they inhabit” and “No European Nation has the right to occupy any part of their country … without their voluntary consent.”
He also advised Cook and his naturalists to “Exercise the utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the Natives of the several lands where the ship may touch. To check the petulance of the Sailors and restrain the wanton use of Fire Arms. To have it still in view that shedding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature.”
But Cook didn’t listen. Instead, he became increasingly frustrated that the savages refused to embrace the gift of civilisation.
The first historical records of celebrations on January 26 happened in 1808, twenty years after the first fleet arrived from Great Britain.
The first official national day named ‘Australia Day’ was on July 30 in 1915 ~ a day to raise funds for the World War I effort. In the decades following, different states held celebrations on various dates. From 1935, all states and territories celebrated on the same date, although various names were still used. Australia Day officially became a public holiday for all states and territories in 1994.
First Nation peoples have been protesting the date for almost the same amount of time, with the first official ‘Day of Mourning’ held by the Australian Natives Association in 1938.
From Little Things …
Wave Hill Station was established on the Gurindji lands by British pastoralists in the 1880s. Mounted police assisted in settling the lands by killing any Indigenous people who dared to resist the invasion of their homes. Indigenous people were unpaid, had deplorable working conditions, were beaten or killed for defying the landowners, and the women were often used as sex slaves. The isolation of the Station allowed this treatment to continue for 80 years.
Then, on August 23 1966, Wave Hill workers and their families, led by Gurindji spokesman, Vincent Lingiari, walked off the Station and began their protest. The protest lasted for nine years, during which time Vincent toured Australia to lobby politicians and galvanise support. The victory was achieved in 1975!
The protest is immortalised by the song, “From little things big things grow,” written and sung by Australian Paul Kelly.
In 1835, a treaty was made between John Batman and the Aboriginal people. There was an exchange of goods and blankets for 250,000 Ha of land. However, this Treaty was never recognised by the authorities, and so Australia remains the only Commonwealth national government that has not signed a treaty with its Indigenous people.
Tasmanian Aboriginal writer and activist Michael Mansell said, “A treaty would break the 200-year-old cycle of governments not negotiating with the Aboriginal people…It would say, ‘we’re no longer just going to do things to them, but that they’re included and empowered.”
A Treaty would provide a framework for negotiations on indigenous issues such as welfare, employment, education, health and land ownership.
Uluru Statement from the Heart
In 2017, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders gathered at the National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the southern sky to make a statement from the heart. It’s a stunning and gracious declaration that I encourage you to read. It calls for establishing a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution. You and I will have the opportunity to express our views on this in a referendum later this year.
I understand why many indigenous people, and others, call January 26 “Invasion Day.” At the very least, it is an annual event that rubs salt in the wounds of our Indigenous peoples. What harm would it do to celebrate Australia Day on another date so that everyone could celebrate this wonderful country together? This would be a tremendous act of “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
I am glad to see the Federal Government taking Indigenous issues seriously. In the future, Australia Day could be held when a Treaty is signed.
Australians Together has some excellent resources that can help you understand the importance of a treaty.